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For all the work I have done with football players for the past year and a half, you would think that I would know better than to underestimate them. My post this past September, when they suffered their first loss of the season, emphasized their grit and resilience. Over the years, and as I have often posted on this blog, I've had a number of players in my classes and I have seen what they can do there, too.

But on Thursday, in my medieval art class, in which twenty players on the McDaniel College Green Terror football team are enrolled, my faith wavered. We were starting a short, two-day Reacting game, in which the students must decide about the role of images in the Byzantine church. It is my Byzantine Iconoclasm game that I have successfully used in the past. But on Thursday, I was not sure. Part of the reason was that I received two emails from different players on Wednesday night asking, "Are we starting that game/debate tomorrow?" Not reassuring.

When we got to class, I gave everyone about 15 minutes to get ready in their groups (Reacting games are made up of factions, or teams, and indeterminates who are not sure what they think about the issues and ask a lot of questions. You can read more about Reacting to the Past here). After that 15 minutes, I called everyone back to the classroom (some use the hallway for meetings). I took my place at the back of the room, because the students run the show in a Reacting class. The football player I cast as the Patriarch Nikephoros rose, walked to the podium, and welcomed everyone to the council and opened debate.

Without hesitation, students came to the podium to make speeches. There were lots of questions. And two football players, shown here, went at it, debating each other very seriously. It was a fantastic moment as a professor. I took the picture below to send to their Coach to show them his players in action.

I do not forget that I have 10 other students not on the team, a few of whom are in this picture, too. And they were ready and spoke that day, too. The mix of students is great and I have been very mindful of being sure to mix the class up at all times.

I will admit that it is really easy to think that the football players will not read, prepare, or get ready for class. I am working with a few students who are struggling in some of their classes. Yet they do care very much about their education and their studies. A colleague of mine ran a focus group with eight players and the findings will form the beginning of a new study of mine to find ways to support these students more effectively.

Reacting works with football players. Reacting to the Past works with many students. But with football players, it's something else. The competition, the debating - somehow it fires them up. At the end of the class on Thursday, several players said to me, "I am going to have a speech on Tuesday! Just wait!" They don't usually say things like that about a class that is five days away.

We play another Reacting game about the Crusades later this semester. I will try not to underestimate them again.

A few weeks ago, before the start of the fall semester, the head coach of the Green Terror Football team asked me to speak to the entire group. As the faculty mentor, I was happy to do it. I love my role, and after I spoke to the team, hopefully giving them some tips about how to focus on classes and developing a goal for after college, I stayed for their team meeting.

It was very eye-opening.

From attending that meeting, it is clear that they have to memorize a ton of stuff. I went to the defense meeting after the team split up. They were going over a bunch of packages and formations for the defense, with letters that represented the positions. They all had a notebook (though I did notice a box of pens, just in case, in the room) to write things down, and were doing so. They were in rapt attention, too.

This told me a lot. First, they can do a lot more than they think they can. They have to memorize a ton of stuff for all of these schemes and plays. This means that they can do more in their classes than they think they can.

Second, their coaches believe in them, so I think they think, “Yes, I can do football.” But it is clearly not easy. I wanted to ask a ton of questions about stuff I did not understand, but of course I did not. The defense coach was saying, “Do not go out there and just be a bull in a china shop: do your job!” They have to do that, to work as a team. But his belief in them as players – as students – was clear to me and I’m sure to them. How often do we show that we believe in all of our students, as students? I have a future post planned about caring - not coddling - students and how that helps them to learn.

Third, while some students were asking questions to ensure they understood everything, it was clear that some didn’t ask anything – even when they needed the answers for the upcoming game. I think they fear looking dumb. But who among us doesn't also feel that way?

This made me glad that I said what I said in the team meeting: Be curious about your classes. Find a way to stay engaged. They have a responsibility to themselves to try harder and to give their attention to all of their classes.

We, as faculty, can do things to help these players, too. Just like their coaches, we can show we genuinely care about their learning. We can change things up, get them involved, and not have them sit for an hour to 90 minutes mostly listening. They only had about 30 minutes of lecture/listening before the coaches changed things up.

And I am also learning other things. That meeting was nearly six weeks ago (the term is flying by!) and the team has had two hard losses since then. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, which you can read here. This week, it was another hard loss, this time by one point! In overtime! That was hard.

But they got back up. They are - right now - focused on the next opponent. I realized while talking to a few of them over this past weekend that I have held on to mistakes and tend to beat myself up about them for a long time. They don't do that. They can't do that.

They characterize resilience and grit.

I hope I am teaching them as much as they are teaching me.

How do you respond when you make a mistake?

I made a big mistake this summer. It was a rather embarrassing one, but I am sharing it in order to demonstrate to all, especially students, that we all mess up. What matters most is how we respond to our screw ups.

I wrote up an article for submission to a journal. I went out on a limb and wrote a piece that was to be in APA style, which I don’t ever use. Art historians use the Chicago Manual of Style for all submissions; I hadn’t ever used APA style. I had references, but didn’t add a reference list. For those of you who know APA style (better than me!), you know that is a big no-no. The editor of the journal sent my piece back to me, saying, “there is no list of references on this, please add one.”

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I can assure you, aside from being really dumb, it was also very embarrassing. It demonstrated that I really didn’t know what I was doing (which I didn’t!). And I hate looking like I don't know what I am doing.

I thought about just not sending it back or fixing it. Because I was embarrassed. But then I thought, well, I have the piece written, and it's good. And I do have references, I just need to add that list in the right way. So, I sat down and I did it. And this week I was told it will be published.

What matters is how I reacted to the knowledge that I messed up.

This is true for you students, too. How you react when something doesn’t go well, or when the football team you play for loses a game, or you don’t get the grade you had hoped on a test or a paper, matters. As I posted last week, there is a lot of buzz right now around resilience and grit. I have developed resilience from years of critical reviews from my peers. I have learned to suck it up, make changes that seem appropriate, and send it back in.

I am seeing that with the football players that I mentor, too. They get back up after getting knocked down. And this week, after a tough loss last week, they won. They got back up. Learned from their mistakes. That is resilience. And grit.

So students: do not give up. Try again. Talk to your professors. Admit when you are confused. Because your reaction matters.

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For those who do not know, I have the distinct privilege of being the faculty mentor to McDaniel College's Green Terror Football Team. In addition to that role, I am also privileged to teach these young men, many of whom sign up for my classes. This past Saturday I watched them fight a dogged battle against a conference foe. And come up a wee bit short. Like three points short. But short is short. I get that.

So this post is for them.

I have watched football all my life. I understand (most of) the rules and the plays. But I have never really understood football until now. And I am only starting to understand it: what it takes to get up play after play after you have been banged around. Or what it takes to play with your whole heart and come up short, and yet get on the bus, go back to campus, and get ready for the next opponent the next week. And I freely admit that I still have a lot to learn.

As I watched the team yesterday, I was thinking about how there is a theme running through higher education circles currently about instilling more grit and resilience in college students. Some feel that this generation's students are too weak and anxious; they need to toughen up!

Well, there are 125 or so young men on a college football team in Westminster, Maryland who are pretty danged tough. They show grit and resilience every Saturday afternoon. They showed it in abundance this past Saturday, in a tough, hard loss. But they never gave up until the very last second. Every single one of them was attuned to what was happening. They were a group of gritty and resilient souls.

I am the luckiest professor in the conference to be this close to these champions, these student athletes who show so much grit and resilience on the field and in their lives. Because as the mentor, I get to hear about the struggles they have in their lives, too. In their classrooms. At home. With finances. And how they overcome them. I am privileged and blessed (yes, I'm using that word) to get to help them.

For those administrators and faculty out there in higher education who want to cultivate more grit and resilience among their student body: look to your student athletes.

Because if they are anything like the Green Terror Football team, they've got grit and resilience in spades.

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